Pop Culture, the Literary Gateway: Guest Post by Crissy Calhoun
Crissy Calhoun is the author of Love You to Death: The Unofficial Companion to the Vampire Diaries series (season 2's guide comes out in September) as well as books on Gossip Girl and one in the works on Pretty Little Liars with the genius Jen Knoch. By day, under the moniker Crissy Boylan, she works at as managing editor at ECW Press, and she generally confuses people by having two last names.
I found myself at San Diego Comic-Con last week, officially there for ECW Press to have a look around and see if we would fit in as an exhibitor. Unofficially, however, I was there to gawk at costumes, attend a few panels, and generally try not to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of attendees (125,000) or the absurdly handsome faces usually seen exclusively on my TV set. Though ECW has a strong history of publishing Canadian writing (and work on Canadian writing, which is how the company got its start), we also have a thriving pop culture list with a ton of titles on TV shows. I happily work on that list in my capacity as managing editor, and I moonlight as an author of companion guides, most recently on the second season of The Vampire Diaries.
If you’re unfamiliar with the genesis of The Vampire Diaries— which airs on MuchMusic here in Canada — it was born of Alloy Entertainment, a savvy youth-oriented cross-media company that generates ideas for YA series, gets the books on bestseller lists (back the early 1990s, in this case), and sees its “properties” developed into television series or films that are more often than not successful.
So I write books about a TV series based on a book series (and, to complicate matters, Vampire Diaries now has a second series of books that are based on the TV series).
Believe me it’s difficult to explain, especially when it comes to the question of why I would devote every iota of my spare time to this pursuit. Beyond the obvious fact that I think The Vampire Diaries is a compelling show that’s entertaining, full of heart and humour (and this is critical when it comes to rewatching a series 9 billion times), and just terrifying enough for network TV, there’s a certain function that I feel these sorts of companion guides, when done well, can play in helping viewers more actively approach a medium that’s long been regarded as passive.
At a panel at Comic-Con called “High School Bites,” a tenth grade English teacher in the audience asked superstar YA author Scott Westerfeld (of the Uglies and Leviathan series, among others) about how to encourage teenagers to read and get them engaged with the content. He suggested working backwards: getting students to read what they want to read — dystopian novels are all the rage in YA these days — and then leading them to the fiction that preceded it. You read The Hunger Games, then you read 1984.
So much a deliberate and inescapable part of much YA fiction and television, references to other popular narratives draw reluctant readers into texts that may otherwise be daunting. As much as it makes fans of the Brontes cringe to see “Edward and Bella’s favorite book” in a starburst on the cover of new editions of Wuthering Heights, the Twilight Saga is very much a “gateway drug” to more literary fiction. In Love Bites a book I ghostwrote with Jen Knoch on Twilight, we looked at narratives like Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, and Wuthering Heights which Stephenie Meyer very explicitly references in her series.
When I write about television shows, I’m using the same analytical skills I picked up with my English degree. There is a whole community of readers and viewers who are looking at popular culture with a critical eye, analyzing characters, structure, and narrative tricks of episodic TV as we deepening our understanding of literary and filmic references these well-educated TV writers throw our way. Writing about Gossip Girl turned out to be a crash course in twentieth-century American cinema. This past season of The Vampire Diaries sent me back to Hemingway and Huxley and Faulkner. (That last one was just cruel from my perspective: the finale was titled “As I Lay Dying” — I love me some Faulkner but I’m on a deadline, people.)
The same thing that made me love to study English in school is what makes me love to write companion guides now. In a world where publishers are warned again and again that we have to “compete” for readers’ attention with a million other (often flashier and bigger-budget) cultural products, it was refreshing to see that even amidst the absolute zoo of San Diego Comic-Con there were earnest and intelligent conversations happening about all manner of imaginary worlds — those realized on TV screens or between the pages of a book, or in the case of The Vampire Diaries, both.
What matters to me as a consumer of culture is that a fictional world is (to use the unofficial slogan of ECW) curiously compelling. That it holds up to critical analysis and sticks with you.
Basically, what I’m saying is, you should all watch The Vampire Diaries.